Nanyang University (Nantah) is not NTU because of all this drama it went through

Its fate was sealed after 3 damning reports.

By Joshua Lee | September 19, 2017

Nanyang University (or Nantah), the People’s University, had its official opening ceremony on March 15, 1956.

Via Wikipedia.

After an arduous journey towards securing the opening of Singapore and Malaya’s first Chinese university, Nantah founder and chairman of the Hokkien clan association, Tan Lark Sye, declared March 15 the “most glorious day for overseas Chinese” who built a university through their “strength and perseverance”.

Read: Nanyang University (Nantah) was set up with support from David Marshall

A short-lived paradise

Nantah campus in 1955. Via NAS.

Nantah saw herself as an institution that would prepare her graduates to build up a new Malaya that was on the brink of independence.

At that time, the University of Malaya was also set up as the colonial government’s way of building a unified “Malayan” education system with English as the medium of instruction.

Non-English medium schools did not receive the same support from the colonial government as their English counterparts.

Hoisting Nantah‘s flag on opening day. Via NAS.

Having just cut off ties with communist China, the colonial government was wary that a Chinese institution, especially one at the apex of the education system, would be an instrument for the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) to continue propagating communist ideas and conduct subversive activities.

Therefore, while Nantah was allowed to proceed in theory, there was a catch — because the colonial government refused to allow the setting up of a second university, Nanyang University had to be set up as a private company, Nanyang University Limited.

As a result, the University had “no right to confer degrees”. Any degrees issued by Nantah was not recognised by the government. 

The Nantah administration set off on a quest to get recognition of her degrees.

Committees and reports

Nantah first appealed to the government by requesting for a commission to assess her academic standards.

The Prescott Commission, led by Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, Stanley Lewis Prescott, conducted a 23-day assessment (out of which two days were spent touring Nantah) before producing a pretty damning report in March 1959 with a recommendation that Nantah be reorganised.

More importantly, even though the Nanyang University Ordinance (which recognised Nantah as a university, meaning her degrees would be recognised) was passed in the same month, the Prescott Report did not support recognition of Nantah’s degrees.

First batch of Nantah students. Via NAS.

As a follow-up to the Prescott Commission’s recommendation, the government assembled a committee to “determine the extent and sequence of the re-organisation deemed necessary”.

This committee was led by Gwee Ah Leng, the acting medical superintendent of the Singapore General Hospital.

‘Informal talks’ between Tan Lark Sye and Gwee Ah Leng in 1959. Via NAS.

Unfortunately for Nantah, the Gwee Ah Leng Report also did not support the recognition of her degrees.

Further, the report called for Nantah to take on the administrative structure of the University of Malaya, and strive to be a more “Malayan” university — a concept which was interpreted differently by Nantah and the government.


The reports were met with massive outrage by Nantah faculty and students alike as well as the Chinese community.

In the early 1960s, a series of protests and clashes between students and the authorities resulted in student arrests and detention — many under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for participating in purportedly subversive (communist) activities.

In return, the arrests prompted fresh waves of student protests.

In the same period, the government revoked Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship, citing his support for the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) as a danger to Singapore’s peace.


In October 1963, a thousand Nantah students protested in front of City Hall with a petition for the following:

  1. Reinstate Tan Lark Sye’s citizenship
  2. Free all detained Nantah students and council members
  3. Promise not to change the vernacular nature of Nantah
  4. Promise not to undermine the University’s autonomy by sending in troops into the school
  5. Provide unconditional financial assistance to Nantah
  6. Recognise all Nantah degrees

The Federal government in Kuala Lumpur retaliated by taking police action against the students to “break the communist control of Nanyang University” on June 27, 1964.

Rioting at Nantah campus during security crackdown in 1963. Via NAS.

Police and military forces broke into Nantah in the middle of the night and arrested 54 students. Students in the dormitories were woken up and searched. Books and documents were taken away.

Reserve unit personnel deployed at Nantah campus during security crackdown. Via NAS.

According to Infopedia, many of the students held positions in various university societies as well as the Nanyang University Students’ Union executive committee. 

Post-crackdown, the Federal government passed an Internal Security (Amendment) Bill which required prospective students to tender a certificate of suitability which would be issued by the state’s Chief Education Officer or Director of Education. 

A slow demise

A final report was involved in Nantah‘s demise.

The Wang Gungwu Report, submitted by a committee headed by Wang Gungwu (then Head of History and Dean of Arts at the University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur) was done in light of Singapore’s merger with Malaysia and, according to Wang many years later, was meant for Nantah in Malaysia.

Stay-in protest by students in 1964. Via NAS.

Released in September 1965, the report recommended that Nantah students be proficiently bilingual and that Nantah adopt a new degree structure — three years plus one honours year.

This report was once again met with protests and a resultant mass expulsion. Foreign students were also deported.

Policemen with student agitator at Nantah campus in 1965. Via NAS.

Over the years the Nantah intake shrank. Many students were looking for English vernacular schools and in August 1980, Nantah merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore (NUS).

In 1981, Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) was formed and occupied the former Nantah campus at Yunan Gardens. NTI became Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 1991.

Post merging of both Nantah and University of Singapore. This photo was taken at a seminar at NUS campus in 1988. Via NAS.

NTU isn’t Nantah

Against the backdrop of such a tumultuous history, recent attempts to rename NTU as Nanyang University were met with backlash by Nantah alumni who felt that the institution and its spirit have been destroyed.

Instead, the only reminder of Nantah we have today is the Chinese Heritage Centre, silent in its reproach.

For an in-depth account of an alumni’s time at Nanyang University, you can read My Nantah Story: The Rise and Demise of the People’s University by Tan Kok Chiang, available at Ethos Books.


Cover image from NAS.

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